* Florida among most tight-fisted states for compensation
* New rules put premium on computer access for the jobless
* Labor Department investigating complaints about state
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Times look set to get tougher for the unemployed in Florida and the grim outlook has nothing to do with Friday's bleak U.S. jobs report.
It's because Florida is doubling down on revised procedures, introduced last year under Republican Governor Rick Scott, that workers' rights groups say have made it more difficult for Floridians to access unemployment benefits.
The state, already saddled with what critics describe as an increasingly frayed social safety net, ranks among the stingiest in the country when it comes to providing jobless benefits for the unemployed.
The changes under Scott include an online-only application process, since the option of applying for compensation by telephone has been eliminated. And there is also a requirement that applicants complete a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math and research skills.
The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the changes, based on a complaint filed in May by the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services.
But new rules, from the agency that runs the state's unemployment insurance system, could soon make life even more difficult for unemployed Floridians without easy access to a computer.
James Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said the rules will require anyone registering for work or unemployment benefits to provide the state and their employers with an individual private e-mail address.
"Unless a claimant has a language barrier or impediment or disability preventing use of a computer, they will be required to provide an e-mail address," Miller told Reuters.
"DEO is happy to assist those with any barriers to using a computer," he added.
Valory Greenfield, an attorney for the nonprofit Florida Legal Services, said the new requirement was a red flag for advocates for the unemployed. The DEO has already been "using every method in the book to trip people up" and to actively discourage them from filing for unemployment compensation, she said.
"NOT DESIGNED TO HELP"
"The idea that benefits might be contingent on providing this e-mail ... and getting in touch exclusively by electronic means, is really what's a concern to us," Greenfield said.
George Wentworth of the National Employment Law Project also voiced concerns about growing obstacles to unemployment insurance in Florida, saying the benefits system was especially deficient for people who don't have computers or are not computer literate.
"It seems as though it's been designed with the specific intent of discouraging workers from accessing benefits that they've earned," he said.
James Taylor, 49, an unemployed sales and executive management professional in the state capital Tallahassee, agreed that Florida's online unemployment benefits and job search program was anything but user-friendly. He spoke in a phone interview immediately after completing a bi-weekly online check-in with the system, recently dubbed "Reemployment Assistance."
"It doesn't seem designed to help generate new jobs but to keep me from being able to collect my unemployment," Taylor said. "The system is not designed to help the individual," he said. "It's just designed to fill a blank in any form."
Randy Brazer, an unemployed 42-year-old hospital and health care administrator based in Miami, said she too found the online benefits process cumbersome at best. "It's a fraudulent system," she said.
Brazer complained she had been denied four weeks of benefit pay because of failing to meet a deadline for taking the 45-question skills test.
"It's truly a caveat in the system to prevent people from accessing benefits," she added, saying she did not receive any clear notice or instructions about the need to complete the test as part of her application process.
"I lost four weeks of money, that's almost $1,000 of benefits," Brazer said.
"They're scamming people," added Alba Giampino, a 45-year-old administrative assistant who recently got off unemployment after finding work at a hospital in Tampa. She too said she had been denied several weeks of unemployment compensation for failing to complete the skills test, without being told she could be penalized for not doing so.
U.S. Labor Department records show that just 16 percent of eligible unemployed Floridians receive state jobless benefits. That puts it in a tie with South Dakota for last place out of 50 states and the District of Colombia, which holds second place at 17 percent.
Florida Governor Rick Scott's Facebook managers posted an image containing a doctored Miami Herald headline, prompting the paper's managing editor to demand it be removed. The post, since deleted from the Governor's social media page, swapped in the headline "New Law Helps Put Floridians Back To Work" in place of the paper's original headline from 2007, "Murders Highlight Rise In Crime In Guatemala" -- making it appear an editorial from the governor had run above the fold on the Herald's front page.
After Florida Governor Rick Scott encouraged journalists to access his emails through his transparency program Project Sunburst in lieu of filing public records requests, it was revealed that emails to his official email account weren't in fact included -- Project Sunburst was only displaying emails sent to a second account that appears on Florida Tea Party websites. As a result at least one news report included a positively-skewed view of Scott after his Lt. Governor made anti-gay comments.
Scott approved SB 98, which means that Florida students are now allowed to deliver "inspirational messages" that include everything from prayers to manifestos at mandatory school events.
In a statement, the governor said the healthcare law would not aid economic growth in his state "and since Florida is legally allowed to opt out, that's the right decision for our citizens."
Scott met with King Juan Carlos of Spain during his economic development mission and immediately managed to bring up the uncomfortable topic of the monarch's disastrous elephant hunting trip to Botswana.
In the midst of old-growth live oak hammocks, wild orchids, and vistas of Lakes Wales Ridge in Lake Kissimmee State Park, Florida hikers may soon see signs boasting "Buster Island Loop, brought to you by Pollo Tropical." Governor Rick Scott approved a bill permitting advertising on state greenways and trails, which went into effect July 1, 2012.
The Governor is in a legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department over the state's effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from lists of registered voters ahead of this year's presidential election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Just before Easter, Florida Governor Rick Scott approved an agricultural bill, which permits animals to be dyed neon green and dayglo pink.
The governor passed a law permitting state agencies to randomly drug test employees every 3 months.
Florida took center stage in the 2012 elections, when voters around the state had to wait in line at the polls for up to nine hours. Gov. Rick Scott (R) initially denied that there was any problem, saying it was "very good" that people were getting out to vote. But a new study shows that tens of thousands of people were actually discouraged from voting because of the long lines. According to an analysis by Theodore Allen, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Ohio State University, as many as 49,000 individuals in Central Florida did not vote because of the problems at the polls.
Most Florida voters, including Republicans, would like to see Gov. Rick Scott (R) challenged in 2014, according to a poll released by Quinnipiac University. More than half of voters said Scott didn't deserve a second term, and 55 percent, including 53 percent of Republicans, wanted another candidate to challenge the governor in a primary. Scott's approval ratings, though improved from 2011, were also underwater.
Governor Rick Scott's long list of controversial legislation -- including tweaking the state's pension plans, require drug testing of those on welfare, cutting teachers' pay, and purging voters -- may have cost Florida taxpayers upwards of $1 million in legal bills. The latest legal bill tallies at $190,000 after a federal court ruled that Florida has to pay the attorney fees as Scott fights for the right to drug test state workers. The Orlando Sentinel found that Scott has already cost taxpayers nearly $900,000 in attorney fees as he fights for his conversational legislation, making this latest legal bill tilt the tally over $1 million.
Florida Governor Rick Scott vetoed a widely popular bill that would send certain non-violent drug addicts to treatment after serving half their sentences. “He said it was a 'public safety’ issue. No it’s not,” said bill sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) according to the Miami Herald. “These are non-violent drug offenders.” The bill, a rare common sense favorite during a legislative season that saw Scott approve dying animals and Jay-Z lyrics debated on the House floor, was opposed by only four state lawmakers.
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Campaign finance reports show Florida Governor Rick Scott -- who framed recent evidence-defying efforts to purge state voter rolls, limit registration and reduce early voting hours as a protection of "honest" elections -- hired an alleged Miami-Dade absentee ballot broker during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Scott's campaign paid a $5,000 "contract labor" fee to 74-year-old Hialeah resident Emelina Llanes, who was identified as a so-called boletera to the Miami Herald and by El Nuevo Herald, multiple Miami-Dade watchdog blogs, and former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños.
In an austerity measure, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state representatives voted to close A.G. Holley State Hospital in Palm Beach County, the state's only tuberculosis hospital, citing a decline in Florida TB cases since 2010. But according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida was suffering one of the largest uncontained TB outbreaks in 20 years -- and the largest spike nationwide -- resulting in 13 deaths and 99 illnesses, mostly among the homeless.
Florida governor Rick Scott accidentally sent constituents seeking information on a fungal meningitis outbreak to a phone sex hotline.
The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University was counting on $2 million in state funds to study the dead pelicans, manatees, and dolphins piling up at Indian River Lagoon, described as a 'killing zone.' Scott vetoed the funding.
Scott signed a law that will speed up Florida's execution process. The governor now must sign a death warrant within 30 days of the Supreme Court certifying that an inmate has exhausted all appeals. The execution date must be six months from the date of the warrant.